One of the greatest games in football is months away from starting, but that isn’t keeping the players from getting warmed up.
The NFL and some of the media companies that broadcast some of its most-watched matches have considered the idea of shaking up the Sunday-afternoon packages that regularly air on CBS and Fox, according to two people familiar with the matter. Under one idea broached, the two networks could get to air packages that include games from both the NFC and AFC, as opposed to the current system, which keeps the NFC on Fox and the AFC on CBS. The talks are extremely preliminary, one of these people cautions, and may not come to fruition.
ESPN’s rights to air “Monday Night Football” last until 2021, and Sunday packages for Fox, CBS and NBC extend through the following year. Yet that isn’t keeping the media industry from focusing on the future of football, which provides the majority of TV’s highest-rated broadcasts and will be essential to the health of the media business as streaming-video options lure millions of couch potatoes away from traditional TV watching.
“This is likely to be the most dynamic negotiation to date,” says David Carter, executive director of the Marshall Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. The current rights holders are certain to bid for more football, but so too are new-tech outlets that may see a chance to use the popular sport to win fans to streaming services.
Already, there is speculation that Walt Disney could offer to put ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” on ABC, which hasn’t aired the property since 2005. A spokesman for ESPN, which produces Disney’s sports programs, declined to comment. And AT&T may want to get in on the business. “We’re not going to take anything off the table,” Jeff Zucker, the newly named chairman of the company’s news-and-sports unit at WarnerMedia, told Variety in an interview Monday when asked about the company’s desire to widen its sports-rights portfolio.
Formal talks about football rights have yet to commence, but at least one company appears to be chomping at the bit to secure a new deal. CBS has “four years remaining on our NFL contract and we fully expect to keep the NFL on CBS for many years to come,” said Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, during a recent call with investors. “While the NFL has been very good for CBS, CBS has indeed been very good for the NFL, generating huge audiences and interest in the game.”
NFL rights are costly. The most recent agreements with CBS, NBC and Fox went into effect in 2013 and last for nine years. The three are believed to be paying a combined $3.1 billion per year for Sunday games, compared to $1.94 billion a year under the previous contract. ESPN’s rights to broadcast “Monday Night Football” are believed to cost around $1.9 billion per year, compared to $1.1 billion paid in the previous contract. Fox struck a separate deal to broadcast “Thursday Night Football” for five years starting this past fall, a pact believed to be worth more than $650 million per year.
And yet, the TV networks would be hard pressed to make a go of it without the games. Consider that a 30-second ad in CBS’ or Fox’s Sunday-afternoon games can go from anywhere from $550,000 to $800,000, according to media buyers. The average cost of a 30-second spot in this season’s “Sunday Night Football”came to $670,846, according to media buyers, and prices can range from the high $500,000s to more than $1 million. The networks also use the games to promote their programs – getting word of coming shows out to millions of viewers in one fell swoop.
Rights fees are expected to go up, because football continues to attract outsize audiences at a time when more couch potatoes are prone to toggle over to tablets, phones and connected-TV services for their video fix. To be sure, NFL games haven’t been immune from recent trends. Ratings for regular-season games declined in both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons as the league contended with the absence of some popular players as well as pre-game protests by select athletes. But in the most recent season, overall viewership increased 5%, compared with tumbles of 10% in 2018 and 8% in 2016.
Shaking up the Sunday-afternoon packages might serve as a sweetener. “There definitely is an impact on the different broadcasters depending on who they have on the air and in which markets,” says Tag Garson, senior vice president of properties at Wasserman, a talent and brand agency with a specialty in sports. “I think it’s definitely going to be an important negotiating point.”
When it comes to NFL and TV, it may never be too early for a discussion.